Bible and Beyond
The “new” archaeology looks for an urban center’s agricultural base

Click here to view the original article.

Until recently, archaeology—or at least Near Eastern archaeology—has been regarded primarily as a historical science. Its focus was history and particularly political history—kings and kingdoms, battles and destructions, the rise and fall of civilizations.

That focus has now shifted somewhat. It is difficult to put a date on the change because it has occurred gradually during the past 30 years or so. Today, many scholars would characterize the “new” archaeology, as it is sometimes called, as an anthropological science, rather than a historical science. How did society work in ancient times? How can we account for social change? What can archaeology tell us about ancient economies and trade patterns and population shifts? These are the “new” foci of attention.

In our view both approaches are important. Archaeology as a discipline must be concerned with all of human creation—material and institutional—as well as the way in which these creations change and fluctuate. The creations of our ancestors include everything from cities and fortresses to literature and art. Rural remains are as important as palaces and temples. Only by studying all of these creations can we understand the impact people have made on the natural setting in which the drama of life takes place.

Because it is so important to get a balanced picture of ancient life, we decided to focus our efforts on the rural remains of ancient Jerusalem. We found excavating these rural remains every bit as exciting as uncovering an ancient city buried in a tell.

Jerusalem even in ancient times was an urban center, surrounded by settlements, villages and fortresses linked by a network of roads. In between were large tracts of agricultural lands that provided the food necessary to support an urban society.

In many ways the urban hub and the surrounding rural areas were interdependent. The rural areas were dependent on Jerusalem commercially and politically Jerusalem, on the other hand, depended on the surrounding farms for a steady supply of agricultural produce. This mutual dependency assumed an urban center that was politically stable and economically sound. The urban center, on the other hand, could expand and develop only if an adequate food supply from the surrounding areas was assured. In short, the population of an urban center was related to food available from the rural areas that surround it.

Our interest in farms outside ancient Jerusalem was first aroused in 1977 during salvage excavations at Mevasseret Yerushalayim, four miles west of Jerusalem in the Judaean hills.1 Construction of houses threatened to disturb or cover up archaeological remains and, therefore, immediate excavation was required. We began excavating a settlement, but we soon became fascinated with the agricultural terraces which had obviously been used by the ancient rural settlers whose houses we were excavating. In 1978, we excavated one of these terraces. We found that the stepped topography was natural, resulting from differential erosion in the soft and hard bedrock. This natural feature, however, formed only the foundation for the artificial, man-made agricultural terraces built on top.

In 1980, we excavated a small settlement southwest of Jerusalem known as Khirbet er-Ras. Our interest in terraces had been piqued at Mevasseret Yerushalayim. Now at Khirbet er-Ras we fully realized that both the terraces and buildings, as well as agricultural installations like wine and oil presses, cisterns, towers, water conduits, reservoirs, artificially-cut caves, and pathways were all part of a pre-planned farming unit—a complete ancient farm.

We concluded that a systematic survey of the rural areas surrounding ancient Jerusalem might well reveal the outlines of numerous farms representing the agricultural support complex for the urban center of ancient Jerusalem.

Beginning in 1981, four teams of archaeologists and surveyors undertook a survey within the municipal boundaries of present day Jerusalem.2 This survey discovered literally hundreds of carefully planned farm units and many other remains scattered around Jerusalem.

We would like to describe two farms—or farm units, as we call them—to emphasize their various elements. Then we shall make some comments about the relationship between this rural agricultural society and the urban center it supported.

The first farm is the one already referred to at Khirbet er-Ras. The farm unit covers an area of about 4.5 acres and was originally built sometime between the eighth and sixth centuries B.C., the latter part of Iron Age II.3

An aerial photograph taken during the British Mandate in Palestine helped enormously in plotting the farm. This photograph enabled us to locate most of the farm features and guided our measurements in the field.

The farm unit consisted of an area of built terraces, surrounded by an enclosure wall (the enclosure wall prevented animals from destroying the growing crops); a fenced alleyway; houses; agricultural installations; and additional enclosed areas which probably served as corrals for animals.

The central feature of the farm was a large Israelite “four-room” house measuring 42 × 32 feet. It consisted of three parallel “long” rooms (one of which was partitioned into three smaller rooms) and, perpendicular to the three “long” rooms, a “broad” room at the back.

This “four-room” plan was the dominant architectural design for houses in both Judah and Israel during the entire Iron Age (1200 B.C.–586 B.C.) Some of the rooms in the Khirbet er-Ras farmhouse even had well-preserved paved floors. A row of four monolithic stone pillars nearly five feet high were found inside the house. Three of these pillars were standing in situ. A fourth was lying nearby. Originally the pillars provided an open wall between two of the long rooms, one of which probably served as an open unroofed courtyard. In front of the house was a large paved area which provided the house with another courtyard.

Although the house had been lived in between the eighth and sixth centuries B.C., as mentioned, evidence of an earlier building was found beneath the courtyard in front of the house. The house also appears to have been briefly occupied sometime during the Second Temple period. In more recent times, a small circular structure was built above the house.

The remains of a second house, less well-preserved, were found to the north of the main house. Adjacent to this second house, we found a wine manufacturing installation. The manufacturing process consisted of two separate operations. The first was the treading of the grapes. A square treading area had been cut into the rock to prevent the grape juice from splashing out. The grape juice would pour into a bell-shaped vat carved from the rock. A shallow filtering basin between the treading area and the vat collected the grape skins, pits and pulp.

The second operation involved the pressing of the grape pulp; this pulp gave the wine its flavor. A niche in a wall had once held a wooden beam that had been weighed down with stone weights during the final pressing of the grape pulp. The liquid from the crushed pulp also flowed into the vat. From the pottery found in the vat we know that this wine press was in use during the Second Temple period, but an earlier layer of plaster suggests that the press was cut and used during an earlier period as well, probably during the late Iron Age.

Near the wine manufacturing installation was an artificial cave which may have served as a wine cellar. On the floor of the cave we found sherds from Second Temple period storage jars.

The bulk of pottery found at Khirbet er-Ras, however, was typical of the late Iron Age—hole-mouth jars, deep bowls with handles, small bowls with folded rims. We also found two jar handles with so-called “l’melech” seal impressions on them. The Hebrew words “l’melech” mean “belonging to the king.” This seal is frequently found on Judean jar handles from storage jars of the eighth-seventh centuries B.C. Our l’melech handles were of the two-winged variety—two wings surrounding a disc.
The word “l’melech” is usually followed by the name of one of four cities- Hebron, Sochoh, Ziph and an unidentified town written Mmst. These seal impressions clearly prove that a state organization regulated agricultural products. Precisely what purpose was served by the seal impressions, however, is a matter of debate. Some archaeologists believe that the seal impression was a government guarantee of the accurate measurement of the vessel. Other scholars argue that the seal impression meant that the contents were manufactured at government plants.

Scattered all over the farm were various stone implements, the most common being milling stones. The mills consisted of ovoid grinding stones and flat slightly concave bases. These grinding stones were made of a hard local limestone. The quarry from which they were taken was recently found nearby.

A narrow alleyway was a repeated feature of these ancient farm units. The high stone walls on either side protected the crops on the terraces from animal predation. These narrow alleyways reminded us of the episode of Balaam and the ass, recounted in Numbers 22. Balaam riding on his ass tried to pass around the angel of the Lord standing in the alleyway barring the way Balaam could not go around the angel of the Lord because the angel stood “in a narrow path between the vineyards with a wall on either side.” (Numbers 22-24)

Indeed, this entire farm—or one very like it—has been described in Chapter 5 of Isaiah, the famous parable in which the Lord likens his people (God’s beloved) to a vineyard that produces only wild grapes-

“My beloved had a vineyard

on a very fertile hill.

He digged it and cleared it of stones,

and planted it with choice vines;

he built a watchtower in the midst of it,

and hewed out a wine vat in it;

and he looked for it to yield grapes,

but it yielded wild grapes.

And now, O inhabitants of Jerusalem

and men of Judah,

judge, I pray you, between me

and my vineyard.

What more was there to do for my vineyard,

that I have not done in it?

When I looked for it to yield grapes,

why did it yield wild grapes?

And now I will tell you

what I will do to my vineyard.

I will remove its hedge,

and it shall be devoured;

I will break down its wall,

and it shall be trampled down.

I will make it a waste;

it shall not be pruned or hoed,

and briers and thorns shall grow up;

I will also command the clouds

that they rain no rain upon it.”

The second farm we would like to describe comes from a later period. The potsherds which were scattered all over the 11-acre farm unit dated to the later part of the Second Temple Period (first century B.C.-first century A.D.) and to the Byzantine period (fourth-seventh centuries A.D.) The Ein Yalu farm, as the local inhabitants call it, must have been built in the Second Temple period and re-used in the Byzantine period, according to the potsherds found on the surface.

Ein Yalu means the Spring of Yalu. The farm is built down the slope below the spring. Today it is near the modern Jerusalem neighborhood of Gilo on a continuation of what is known as the Rephaim ridge. The Ein Yalu farm is on the other side of the valley (the valley of Rephaim) from the first farm we described at Khirbet er-Ras.

The main building of the Yalu farm is badly deteriorated. The building had been completely filled in with soil and had thus been transformed into a terrace. The filling in of ancient buildings in later periods in order to form terraces is a common occurrence and partially explains why so many of these buildings have “disappeared.”

In addition to the carefully built terraces, the farm features an adjacent uncultivated area of about 1.5 acres enclosed by a wall and the usual narrow alleyway The uncultivated area was probably a corral for livestock.

The most impressive element of the farm, however, is the water system created from the spring. Originally the Ein Yalu spring flowed out of a natural cavity in the rock. At an early period, a horizontal tunnel was cut into the rock to locate and develop the water source. A channel, partly plaster and partly stone, was built into the floor of the tunnel. At the spring end of the tunnel, branching channels were dug to catch as much of the water as possible. At a later stage, ceramic piping was set into the channel, perhaps because the channel was silting up.

The tunnel with its channels directed the flow to a small barrel-vaulted chamber, about 6 × 12 feet. A vertical shaft had been constructed from the ground surface down through the roof of this chamber to provide access by a rope and bucket to the water below. From the vaulted chamber the water flowed into another channel (later a parallel tunnel was used) to a 9 × 12-foot pool dug into the rock. From the pool the water was conveyed to a large rectangular reservoir 20 × 40 feet. This open reservoir on the slope of the hill would have held over 3,500 cubic feet of water.

From this large reservoir, the water flowed in irrigation channels to the cultivated terraces. Nearly three acres of terraces were irrigated in this way.

The Ein Yalu farm, like Khirbet er-Ras, was obviously built according to a carefully conceived plan. The intricate water system at Ein Yalu with its complicated engineering, the straight terrace walls, the adjacent alleyway—all point to this conclusion.

Perhaps the greatest effort of all was expended in building the terraces.4 The techniques of terrace building varied from area to area, depending on the nature of the area and the kind of stone and soil available. But whatever the conditions, the farmer had to “create” his land by literally building up fields on the hillside or in the valley beds and regulating the flow of water to achieve a balance between the dynamics of soil and water.

The creation of a terrace was not a simple task. First the terrace wall had to be built. After years of field examination, we have distinguished five different types of terrace wall construction.
One is typical of the Iron Age. The terrace walls at this time were built of large triangular stones to form a series of pillars. Smaller stones were used to fill in the area between the larger stones.

In the Roman and Byzantine periods the terrace walls were built of rectangular stones fitted together by being laid on rows of small stones. This was the same technique used to build house walls at this time.

Other terrace wall styles cannot yet be dated. Some terrace walls were built of flat stones laid in herringbone fashion. Others were built entirely of small stones. Still others were built of flat stones laid in staggered rows like bricks.

Inside the terrace wall, the area was carefully built up with different materials. First a layer of gravel, then a layer of soil, then a layer of stones or another layer of gravel, and finally a layer of organic soil which inevitably was created over years of use. A fill of gravel was usually placed immediately behind the terrace wall.

In this way, the rain water would be soaked up in the soil in which the plants were growing and the surplus would flow to the terrace below.

When cared for properly and dutifully repaired, these terraces would last for thousands of years. Indeed, most of the terraces cultivated today appear to be of ancient origin, and it has been estimated that 60 percent of the hills west of Jerusalem are now covered with agricultural terraces, most of them ancient.5

The crops grown on the terraces varied widely and included almonds, figs, olives, grapes, and grains. Vegetables could be grown only on terraces irrigated with spring water, such as the one we examined at Ein Yalu.

Whether these complicated farm units were built by the state or by private resources we do not know. But it is clear that most of the farms were built and used during the periods of greatest population concentration in the city of Jerusalem.

The earliest remains we have found in the vicinity of Jerusalem are from the Neolithic period. We also found a settlement dating to the Middle Bronze I period (second millennium B.C.). Very few such settlements have been found so near Jerusalem.

But the earliest evidence for large-scale construction of farm units and terraces dates to the late Iron Age (eighth-sixth centuries B.C.). During this period Jerusalem’s city limits and its population expanded to three or four times its former size, probably because of the influx of refugees from the northern kingdom (Israel) which was destroyed by the Assyrians in 721 B.C. (See “Estimating the Population of Ancient Jerusalem,” BAR 04-02). Later in this period a strip of land in western Judah was conquered by Sennacherib and again refugees fled to Jerusalem.6 This increased population could only be supported by a carefully planned farming system outside the city which creatively utilized the relatively sparse resources of the countryside. There are few flat plains in the Judean hills outside Jerusalem. The valleys are deep and the valley floors narrow. There is simply not enough arable land in a natural state to support the estimated 20,000 people inhabiting Jerusalem in Hezekiah’s time. The answer was the creation of terraces that transformed hillsides into stepped flat fields supported by retaining walls.

The latter part of the Second Temple period and the Byzantine period were also periods of prosperity and population expansion. Again the evidence is that the urban expansion during these periods was supported by an agricultural expansion in the hinterland.7

Much work remains to be done in investigating and understanding this rural hinterland.8 We hope to refine still further methods for identifying farm units. We continually study aerial photographs and detailed maps for this purpose.

There is, unfortunately, need for haste. Development, afforestation, building projects and the clearance of large areas for modern agriculture are destroying terraced areas around the modern city. We must study these material remains of ancient agriculture around Jerusalem before they are gone forever.

We wish to thank the Director of the Israel Department of Antiquities and Museums, Avraham Eitan, for permission to publish this material, and Amos Kloner, Yosef Gat, Gloria London and Paul Maynard. Oscar Shmilshuk assisted during the survey, and photographs were taken by Tom Wachs and Anita Kiekhaefer. We thank the many volunteers and all others who participated in our project.

1. Gershon Edelstein and Mordechai Kislev, “Mevasseret Yerushalayim- the ancient settlement and its terraces,” Biblical Archeologist, Winter 1981, pp. 53–56.

2. These teams are being directed by Gershon Edelstein, Shimon Gibson, Oded Avisar and Beni Frankel on behalf of the Archaeological Survey of Israel.

3. These excavations were directed by Gershon Edelstein and Yosef Gat from May 1980 through July 1980 with the assistance of Shimon Gibson, Beni Frankel and Oscar Shmilshuk.

4. Gershon Edelstein and Yosef Gat, “Terraces Around Jerusalem,” Israel—Land and Nature Vol. 6 (1980–81), pp. 72–78.

5. Zvi Ron, “Agricultural Terraces in the Judean Mountains,” Israel Exploration Journal 16 (1966), pp. 33–49 and 111–122.

6. Magen Broshi, “The Expansion of Jerusalem in the Reigns of Hezekiah and Manasseh,” Israel Exploration Journal 24 (1974), pp. 21–26.

7. Edelstein and Gat, pp. 72–78.

8. C. H. J. de Geus, “The Importance of Archaeological Research into the Palestinian Agricultural Terraces with an Excursus on the Hebrew Word gbi,” Palestine Exploration Quarterly, (1975) pp. 65–74.